The Breaks

Written by Scott King

Illustration by Gutti Barrios

Length 4683 Words


Highlight to read content warnings:

Discussion of suicide

When the clerk at the convenience store takes my twenty for the frozen mac and cheese and the cheap wine, I barely notice the fractal pattern of cracks running across his face. They are unique yet generic, like a one-of-a-kind snowflake in a field of snow. Special, but not.

When I was young, I tried to decipher the meaning of the breaks. My mother had one that ran from below her right eye, across her nose, and then curled around beneath her cheek. It was geometrical, made from dozens of rectangles overlaid, making her look like a digital android, or some sort of science fiction space traveler. For years I prodded, trying to figure out what in her past could have caused such a break, but I was never able to determine anything.

I suppose that is the nature of being human. We are all broken, and sometimes we don't even know why.

The clerk wishes me goodnight. He's a nice guy, whose name I can never remember, but I do know he has a daughter that recently got into Yale. His deep brown eyes seem sad tonight… no, not his eyes. It's the skin around them. There are new breaks that have appeared since I last saw him. They are minuscule, V-shaped, as if a tiny songbird has danced around his face, leaving footprints.

One could infer that maybe the financial stress of his daughter going to an Ivy League school is causing him to break, but it's too much of a leap without knowing more. Maybe his dog died, maybe he lied to his husband about something important, maybe he lied about something small, maybe he overly invested in the current football season and his team is losing, pushing him over the edge, maybe his all-time favorite TV show was just canceled. That is the problem with trying to identify breaks. You can't know the inner workings of another person, and any guesses you make are just that… guesses.

"Your change!" he calls to me, but I'm already heading out the door.

"Keep it for your daughter's college fund."

"Thanks." He does an awkward self-deprecating laugh. "I'll need it."

The smell of the city hits me, but it is nothing compared to the humidity. It is one of those summer nights where the air is so thick, you drink it more than breathe it. It is the kind of night when you hope cheap wine will help you sleep because your AC is down, and your landlord is too stingy to fix it.

Across the street is a bus stop, the one I take to work in the mornings. Seated inside is a person who is maybe in their mid-thirties. The lighting is dim, but I see an almost sparkle on their face. Some breaks do that, reflect or glisten in the right light, but what is most strange is that this person's breaks form a shape. A glittering feather is stamped across their right eye, stretching from their brow to cheek.

It's like no break I have ever seen.

Everyone is broken. Usually it happens by age five, but even if it hasn't, I have never met anyone over the age of ten who wasn't broken in some way. Sometimes there are breaks on breaks. Sometimes their face is unmarked and the breaks show on their arms, legs, chest, or back. Never have I seen a break that looked like something.

Considering the thousands of people I must pass on the streets on a yearly basis, or those I have seen on TV, or in videos, you'd think sometime before now I would have seen someone with a break resembling a recognizable shape… but I haven't, until now.

Does it mean something? Or is it pure chance, like a cloud that just happens to look like Abraham Lincoln? Certainly, with the number of humans alive, it would make sense that someone somewhere had a break that was shaped to look like something, but—

Damn. I need to get a better look, but the bus comes before I cross the street, and the person is gone.

I convince myself I must have just mistaken the feather shape. I indulge myself by going home and drinking half a bottle of wine, while managing to finish a whole carton of frozen mac and cheese. I have no regrets. I even manage to sleep, though the air in my small apartment feels like it's made from puppy drool.

In the morning, I wake tangled in sheets, sweating.

Although I hate cold showers, I take one, just to have some relief from the heat.

As I dry myself off with a towel, I see my reflection in the door of the shower. It's the closest thing I have to a mirror. Usually, I'm good at avoiding my reflection, but sometimes I slip. It is easy to accept in your mind that everyone is broken, but it is hard seeing your own breaks reflected back at you. They are ugly reminders of the worst moments of my life, and unlike with others, I know what caused each one…

The twisted braid down my left arm… my mother's death.

The impact craters on my right cheek… when I was downsized from my job.

The splitting across my right cheek… the first time I was cheated on.

The circular scratch across my chest… the one time I cheated.

The spider webbing on my legs… the day I almost tried to kill myself.

The slashes under the webbing… the day I got divorced.

The fractures under my chin… the first time I was ever told to go home to my own country.

The stress lines around my waist… from when I realized I could never get rid of my ability to see breaks.

The list goes on…

Standing naked, in the foggy reflection of the shower door, I wonder what if each of the breaks weren't breaks, but were instead things I could choose… like a feather?

I need to find the person from the bus stop.

***

It takes seven weeks, but I finally see the person again.

Before I see them, though, I develop a new break. This one is a bracelet circling my left wrist. It is chunky, like cracks in a painted cinderblock wall. It's from an awful evening when I dropped my god damn brick-fired pizza, while walking back from the restaurant, and spent the night crying because I never thought I would find the feathered person again. After a lifetime of living with the breaks, without understanding them, I feared I had missed my only chance to get any answers.

Now here I am, not a fortnight later, and they walk onto the very bus I'm riding, heading downtown.

I'm supposed to be going to work, but the moment the person sits, I know I'm not.

Their break doesn't just lightly resemble a feather—it is a feather. I don't know enough about feathers to know what kind it is, but it is long, like a quill. The shaft flows parallel to their nose, and the barbs drape outward, blanketing their eye. The break is beautiful.

The real issue is now that I have found the feathered person, what am I supposed to do? I can't just walk up to them and say, "Hey, how did you get that feather-shaped break on your face that is apparently invisible to everyone but me?"

I know from experience how pervy someone approaching you on public transportation can be. I don't want to scare them, and I don't want to wait till they get off and follow them. Of course knowing me, that would be my luck. I finally find the feathered person, and before I could build up the courage to say something, they would leave. Then I'd have a second round of crying over dropped pizza and the mystery of their breaks.

"Do you mind if I sit?" The feathered person is leaning in close, pointing to the empty seat beside me.

I can't find the words to speak, so I answer by lifting my messenger bag, with my work laptop, onto my lap, freeing the seat beside me.

"What's your name?" they ask.

"Jai. She/her."

"Thanks, Jai. I'm Avery. She/her." She points to my left wrist. "I like your bracelet."

For a split second I think she must mean my newest break, but when I look for myself, I see the silver armband I've been using to cover the break so that I don't have to look at it.

"It was my mother's." I pull it off, and flip it to show the engraving on the underside. "It's the date she and my father first met. He gave it to her on their fifth anniversary."

I don't tell Avery that it was the last gift my father gave to my mother before he was killed in a car accident. I was only four at the time, and don't remember him. Mom wore the bracelet every day of her life until she died. I usually avoided wearing it for fear of losing it, but it was the only bracelet I had wide enough to cover my newest break.

"That's so sweet," Avery says. "I think the only thing my father has ever given my mother is a migraine."

She laughs and I follow suit because I don't know what to say and laughing feels like the socially appropriate response.

The conversation goes quiet and I feel the pressure like it's my turn to say something. I need to do something. I need to understand this woman, but I can't find the words. Instead I point to her purse. It's woven out of seat belt fabric and covered in pins. There is a corgi butt, a cheeseburger, a whole row of polyhedral dice, a big rainbow, and some cartoon characters I don't recognize.

"I like the pins," I say.

"Do you really?"

"Yes."

She twirls the purse revealing even more pins that were hidden on the backside. "They are all mine."

"Oh…" My voice catches. "I wasn't saying they weren't yours just—"

She laughs. "No, I mean that I make them."

"Like physically make them?"

"No…" She opens her purse. It is pure chaos inside. She shifts things around and pulls out a card. It is white, but the letters spelling the company's name, ‘Get Pinned,' are made from pins of individual letters. "I do the graphic design, order them from a printing company, and sell them. Sometimes people hire me to make custom ones. It's not enough to quit the day job, but for a side hustle it's not bad."

"What's the day job, something horrible?"

Avery pulls back the right sleeve of her hoodie. Along her wrist is a feather tattoo that looks identical to the break across her face. "I'm a tattoo artist. I designed this, and had a friend do it."

I have so many questions, but don't know how to ask them without sounding unhinged, so I simply smile. "It's beautiful."

"I don't know about that." Her nose wrinkles. "This was an early one. I can do better now."

The bus stops.

"Crap." Avery stands. "This is me."

She leaves and I'm left holding her business card… so confused about everything.

***

I get to work late, since I didn't get off at my stop while I had been talking to Avery. My boss is in a meeting with marketing and doesn't even realize I'm late. He is one of the few people I know who have the majority of their breaks concentrated on the top of their head. When he gets his hair cut short, I can see the breaks on his scalp. They twinkle like frozen mountains on a broken moonscape.

Across the conference table from my boss is someone I don't recognize. Their breaks completely cover their face as if their whole head is made out of marble. Cracks cover every inch, so that they resemble an outer space creature. As far as I know, breaks that extensive usually suggest the person has been through something utterly horrible, or is going through something horrible.

The person turns and when I see their profile I realize who it is. It's Devin, the marketing copy guy. But I saw Devin just yesterday, and his breaks looked nothing like that. Breaks can happen whenever and in whatever amounts, but if something so severe happened overnight Devin must be going through something fierce, something so bad it literally broke him.

I can see the conference room door from my desk so I head into my office and keep my blinds up so that I will know when the marketing meeting has ended. I don't know what I'm going to do, or what I am going to say, just that I have to try and talk to Devin.

I know if I don't talk to him and something bad happens I will develop new breaks. But how does one approach a person who is in the middle of breaking? You would think that I would be better at this, but I'm not. I can barely talk about my own breaks. Talking to someone about theirs isn't something I know how to do.

"Did you get the projects report finished?" Jan, the only other woman who works in my department, pops in, leaning halfway through my open office door. "I gotta send it up to Hank."

"Yeah." I shake my mouse to wake my computer. "It should be in the shared folder unless my laptop didn't sync."

"Can you check?"

"Sure." I open our department's server and check the shared folder. The work I stayed up late last night to turn in is there. "It's here."

Jan leans across my desk putting her face way too close to my screen. Her nose scrunches and her mouth hangs open. "Huh. Didn't see it before."

"It's there." I bite my lip to keep from saying anything else.

"Yeah, thanks," Jan says. "My laptop must not of synced with the server."

I roll my eyes as she walks back to the door.

The second she is gone I check the conference room and swear. The marketing meeting is over and Devin is nowhere in sight.

I can't imagine a break that covers one's entire face and looks as layered as Devin's wouldn't be serious. The breaks were so bad I hadn't recognized him. They had hidden the underlying shape and features of his face. Something like that is bad… like kill-yourself-or-someone-else bad.

I check Devin's cubicle in the marketing department. He's not there. He's not in the break room. I suppose he could be in the bathroom, but that doesn't feel right.

Devin left and there are only two reasons for that.

Fearing the worst, I rush to the elevator, and take it to the top floor of the building. There is a patio garden there. We are supposed to be able to use it for meditation time, but I don't know anyone who has ever used it for that. Most use it to eat their lunch on nice days, or to secretly smoke.

The elevator opens and I exit onto the patio. There are some worn stone benches around a small flower garden that clearly needs to be watered. Past that is Devin, leaning against the roof's railing, looking down at the street nineteen floors below us.

He turns, maybe at the sound of the door opening, and gives me a nod. That's probably a good sign.

"Hank send you to find me?" Devin asks.

I shake my head. "No, does Hank need you for something?"

"He wants me to completely redo three weeks of work in like two days."

I cross the patio garden and rest my hands on the railing. The wall is chest height for me, and the railing nearly chin level. I could clear it, but it would take work. Which meant Devin could do the same, since he is taller. "You going to be okay?"

"Why?"

"I don't know," I say. "Just sorta feeling like something is going on. Not that you need to share, or tell me anything. But if you want to, I can listen."

"Can we just like… stand here?"

"Yeah. We can stand here."

So we stand there. Not talking. It feels like a long silence, but I can't tell if it really is. Time feels different when you are standing on a roof next to someone who might jump.

"My fiancée is leaving me." He says it as if this whole time he has been trying to build up the courage to speak it aloud.

"That sucks."

"I deserve it." He looks down. "Well… maybe I don't, but I didn't do anything to stop it. I didn't make the time. I chose the wrong things to prioritize. I had too many irons in the fire, and not enough hands to handle them. I should have been better."

"I've been there." I feel like I live there. "I think everyone has been there. The feeling that there is no climbing out of this hole."

"Your life is perfect. You are always so happy."

I laugh. I don't mean for it to be such a condescending laugh, but it is. "You're freaking joking, right?"

"No. I'm serious."

"My life is a mess. When I got divorced I thought it was the end of the world."

"You were married?" He gives me a confused look. "You've never talked about an ex-husband."

"Probably because I didn't have one."

"Then how could you have been married?"

I pinch my nose, and sigh. This is what it is like working with Devin. "I'm a lesbian, Devin. I had a wife."

"Oh." He looks around as if in trouble. "You aren't going to tell HR are you?"

"That's not how that even—" I shake my head. "No. Never mind. The issue is life is shit. Utter shit. It will eat you. Digest you. Shit you out, and then eat you again. THAT is what it means to be alive. That is what it means to be human."

"You aren't making me feel better."

"I'm just saying, Devin, it's not you. Everyone is broken. The world is shit. The situation you are in is shit. Maybe it's your fault. Maybe it's not. Doesn't matter who is to blame, it is still shit either way. I'm sure it doesn't feel like you will ever see the other side of it. It's okay to feel broken. It's okay to feel shattered. It's okay to admit you aren't strong enough. It's okay. All of it. It's not you, it's just life. And sometimes life sucks."

He puts a hand on my arm. "Are you okay?"

I laugh again, because I had come up here to try and make sure he was all right, and here he is comforting me.

"I'll be fine," I say, knowing it's true. "Just things sometimes suck, and at least right now, in this moment, I am not in the hole. I guess I'm just scared of falling in again."

"I wish I was where you are. I don't know if I can ever be where you are again."

"You will be, and if you need to vent, or cry, or anything, you can reach out to me."

"Thank you."

He turns his back to the wall and railing. "I probably need to start the redesign for Hank."

"Good luck."

"Thanks."

He leaves and I stay.

For a split-second, I think not about jumping, but thinking about thinking about jumping. Then the guilt sinks in, and I have to remind myself the very words I had just said to Devin.

I feel silly for thinking he was up here to do harm, seems more like he just wanted space. I guess I had read his breaks wrong. That's the thing about breaks, you can see the damage, but it is impossible to guess what caused it, or what it might cause a person to do.

Sirens sound from several blocks away. A moment later I see an ambulance speeding through traffic.

I can't help but wonder if the person riding in the ambulance might be breaking… or maybe they are dying and those trying to help them are breaking. No matter what, there would be breaks. Someone somewhere would be breaking. It is simply part of being alive. Living meant breaks.

Maybe I need to try living more and worrying less about my own breaks.

***

According to the business card Avery gave me, her tattoo shop is less than ten blocks from my work. I ditch my afternoon meeting and head there.

A bell rings as I enter. The shop is empty except for Avery who sits in a tattoo chair, drawing on a sketchpad.

She looks at me and smiles. "Stalking me, Jai?"

My cheeks feel warm—I hope the blushing isn't visible.

"Joking." Avery throws her pad onto a nearby counter. "And since you don't seem like the tattoo type, my guess is you are here for another reason?"

"No." I lie. "I'm sooo into tats. I'm like the extra of tats, and want to get like sleeves of tats tatted, and stuff."

"I was going to suggest we get food, but if you are just here for a tattoo…" Avery stands and motions to the tattoo chair. "I'm happy to—"

"No. Food is good."

Again, Avery smiles.

We walk a block in silence. It's not an awkward silence, like the one I had with Devin on the roof. It's comforting, as if we both know that neither of us has to say something.

She takes me to a taco shop where we order street tacos from a counter. I have never had a street taco, so when it is my chance to order, I go with the daily special—barbacoa with avocado, cotija cheese, cilantro, and drizzled with a jalapeno lime sauce. They give us a number, and we sit at a table.

"Be honest," Avery says. "Have you ever even thought about getting a tattoo?"

Of course I had thought of it, and the idea scared the hell out of me. I know, better than anyone, what it is like to have visible marks on your body that you can't remove. I hate my breaks. They are ugly and embarrassing. Adding more permanent marks to my body just seems terrifying.

"Yes. Maybe. I don't know." I drop my gaze to the homemade tortilla chips. "How did you know when you wanted to get your first tattoo?"

"I'm not religious, I just want to make that clear up front," she says. "But I do believe there are things we don't know. Things science can't yet prove. Maybe there are spirits, or ghosts, or angels, or I don't know… maybe even magic exists."

I nod in agreement, knowing for a fact that there are unexplained things.

She must think I am mocking her, because now it is her turn to stare at the tortilla chips. "I'm just saying, we don't know what is out there."

"I know," I say.

Our gazes meet, and I smile, trying to show her that I am not judging her.

Avery opens her mouth to speak, but before she does, a server arrives, delivering us two trays filled with tacos. They smell like heaven. Avery takes a big bite of her first taco. It crunches, and a bit of sauce dribbles down her chin. She wipes it away with the back of her hand.

"No one has all the answers. There is too much out there that we don't know," Avery says. "But sometimes, we are lucky enough to make sense of the unknown. Not too long ago, I was in a bad way. Living in my car. No one to turn to. Then one night there was this… I know it sounds silly, but there was a feather. Looked magical like off a dragon, or phoenix, or something. It was just lying there on the ground among old gum and cigarette butts. Just picture that for a moment… this beautiful thing surrounded by ugliness… and what I found shocking was that the ugly didn't take away from the beauty."

Avery leans across the table and rolls up her shirtsleeve, once more showing me the feather tattoo. Every line, every curve, matches identically to the feather-shaped breaks on her face.

"Beautiful," I say, hoping she thinks I am only talking about the tattoo.

"I got this tattoo because it's a reminder of who I was in that moment. It represents hope. It says that no matter how bad things get, you can't let those things steal your shine."

"That's…" Why do I always fail to find words when I want them? I want to tell her that I understand. That it seems like she treats the tattoos not as permanent marks on her body, but as a roadmap. They tell not just a story, but her story. It doesn't matter if, in twenty years, a tattoo she had gotten now seems frivolous, because that tattoo is still a part of her journey.

"Pathetic?"

"No, I was going to say beautiful, but I had said that before, and didn't want to say it again."

Her dangerous smile flashes at me. "Say it again."

"Beautiful."

She kisses me. It's wet, messy, and the spicy juice from her taco makes my lips tingle.

We pull away, and I know this time she can clearly see me blushing.

"Look, not saying all my tattoos are deep and meaningful," she says. "Some are for pointless shit, but that's okay too. I don't need a reason to have them, other than that I wanted them."

Avery takes another bite of her taco, and I realize I need to take a bite of mine, or I will look weird for not eating it. It is just hard to focus and think, too many questions run through my mind, not to mention I really want to kiss Avery again.

Did the feather-shaped break come before, after, or exactly when Avery got the tattoo? Had the break been something else, and she reshaped it? I long to be able to talk about what I see with someone else, but I have made that mistake once before, and I don't think I am strong enough to try it again. I don't want any new breaks because of it.

But I suppose breaks mean I'm alive. Maybe it's okay if I have new ones. They aren't something to be ashamed of, they are just a roadmap of my life.

***

Six months later, Avery and I move in together. Our leases expire a month apart and it sort of just happens.

Things aren't perfect between us, but they are good, healthy. Before we take the leap, I tell Avery about the breaks.

She cries, upset that I have been dealing with the breaks alone for so long. Her crying makes me cry. It's a big ol' cry-fest that ends in hugs, kisses, and macaroni and cheese.

The biggest change that comes from living with Avery is that she hangs mirrors in our new loft apartment. I spent my whole life avoiding my reflection, but now I have grown to like it. My breaks are all still there, but with them is a new tattoo. It is around my right wrist and designed to look like a braided bracelet. On one side it is solid, but on the bottom it is frayed, as if about to fall apart, and yet, a single strand still holds it together.

Along my waist, where my breaks had once been stress lines, the breaks have reformed to match the tattoo on my wrist. Maybe it was Avery's magic, or some sort of healing on my own, or something else… I still haven't figured it out, but I like it. I may be broken, but my breaks are mine. They aren't a sign of weakness. They are beautiful.


© Scott King

Rachael K. Jones

Scott King was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Ocean City, Maryland. He received his undergraduate degree in film from Towson University, and his M.F.A. in film from American University. For years, King worked as a college professor, teaching photography, digital arts, and writing related classes. He now works full time as an author. King's non-fiction books are a way for him to get back that feeling of teaching a class, while his fiction books are his way of having fun. Find out more about King at: www.ScottKing.info or follow him on Twitter at @ScottKing or on Instagram at @KingScottKing.